The opportunities presented by uncertainty

There is no doubt that 2016 will be remembered as a turbulent year. With a number of ‘it could never happen’ moments becoming a reality we seem to have been left in a period of limbo where nobody dares guess what could happen next. For many people, circumstances meant that change was necessary and a revolt against the expert class was inevitable but now, as we try to make sense of the new world that we find ourselves in, we need to gather and consider what must be done to navigate our next steps.

It was with this in mind that we at IFF held a research seminar last week considering the role of evidence in times of uncertainty. Times of change are also times of opportunity and we wanted to discuss what can be done now with the circumstances we have been dealt to move towards a positive future.

Like most of the people in the seminar room, at IFF we believe in evidence. But we can also understand why others find it more difficult. We have seen confidence in analysis undermined by the disastrous failure of polls to predict the 2015 UK election, the EU referendum and the 2016 US election. Economists’ failure to predict the 2008 recession shook public faith in forecasting and analysis. As government budgets tightened in response so did research budgets decline, along with a focus on evidence-based policy making.

The need for evidence

IFF Research was founded in 1965 by Andrew McIntosh – later Lord McIntosh of Haringey. A researcher by background, Lord McIntosh founded our company when he found that the political and policy world he was operating in wasn’t grounded in the facts and figures he needed to make important decisions.

Fifty-years later, we still see that need for evidence-based decision-making and we aren’t willing to give up just yet.

Of course we must recognise that the way the world communicates has fundamentally changed, people are no longer mere passive receivers of information but are also producers online, through social media and other online platforms. Everyday people are challenging the authority of experts on knowledge. So whilst we will always believe in a need for balanced, informed, analysis and insight, at IFF we are looking at the way we’re telling stories about our data and talking about evidence. We want to connect with and engage the widest possible audience, not just ‘people like us’.

This may seem like an overwhelming and impossibly challenging time in our history, but we are a community of users, producers and promoters of evidence. Together we have a wealth of knowledge that can help us to navigate uncertainty. In the absence of a plan, aren’t people more willing to listen to those that have something to offer?

Our four seminar speakers gave some insights into how they thought we could make the most of this opportunity to change the discourse, to influence the debate and to do our work in different ways.

We heard from Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA about the four perspectives of evidence which we must understand if we are to genuinely engage and influence.

Richard Bartholomew, Editor of the SRA Journal and Former Head of the Government Social Research Network, challenged the idea that we are seeing the death of the expert but acknowledged that facts are often trumped by emotion and personal beliefs.

Financial Times Journalist Izabella Kaminska used excerpts from Donald Trump’s 1987 book the ‘Art of the Deal’ to illustrate that creating an impact is an art and that if we want evidence to be heard we must be strategic in the way we communicate.

Jonathan Breckon, Director of the Alliance for Useful Evidence, cautioned against confusing ‘evidence’ with ‘expert’. Any rejection of experts does not mean that evidence goes out the window. And as people with an interest in evidence, we must ‘get our boots dirty’ – the polls got it wrong but the people out there on the ground – the people out there talking to voters at rallies- they read it right.

We will be sharing more from the seminar over the course of the next few weeks including a full write up of the event and videos of the four presentations, stay in touch by following us on Twitter – @iffresearch #EvidenceMatters – and LinkedIn.